Ecology

Northern Pygmy Owls interact with our ecosystem in a variety of ways! They eat rodents, insects, reptiles, and other birds. This owl nests in holes in trees, but they never dig their own cavities. Instead, they rely on cavities formed by rot or woodpeckers! (Photo by Mouser Williams)

Did you know that the word ecology comes from the Greek roots “oikos,” or house, and “-logia” or study? So, you can think of it as the study of home, or how organisms relate to their environments. 

This week on Take It Outside, we are exploring some of the particular ways organisms in Northern New Mexico relate to our local environment.

Summer Nature Challenge:

You’ll earn this Abert’s squirrel sticker by participating in Ecology Week!

Participate in our Summer Nature Challenge! Every week, participants who complete the challenge can earn a sticker. If you finish all nine weeks, you’ll earn a bonus sticker! Find our archive containing all of our past Take It Outside activities here.

Download the challenge sheet here to print out and complete at home. At the end of the challenge, you can either bring it to the nature center or mail it to us at 2600 Canyon Rd, Los Alamos, NM 87544.

If you don’t have a printer or prefer to work online, you can tell us about your experiences in the Google Form below or email your stories and pictures to takeitoutside@peecnature.org.

 

Blog Post:

In this week’s blog post, learn bats have impacted life as we know it. Check it out here!

Outdoor Challenges:

We’re posting three outdoor challenges today that you can enjoy throughout the week!

Tell us about your experiences with one, two, or all three of them! You can do this in the Google Form below, by writing or drawing about them on our summer challenge sheet, or by sending an email to takeitoutside@peecnature.org.

We explored bats at a Halloween Nature Playtime in 2018. Some of our participants even dressed the part! (Photo by Rachel Landman)

 

Challenge #1 – Look for Bats!

There are at least a dozen species of bats in Northern New Mexico. Try to spot some of them! Bats are active at dusk and dawn, and sometimes throughout the night. They like to eat bugs and prefer areas with open skies.

Some places to look include over bodies of water, like at Ashley Pond in Los Alamos, or rivers, lakes, and water treatment ponds. Or, try looking near parking lots where the lights attract bugs. Let us know where you saw a bat!

 

Challenge #2 – Ecosystem Mapping

This challenge is based on an activity designed by the Santa Fe Watershed Association. An ecosystem is composed of the living and nonliving things in a place, and all the relationships between them. Take a piece of paper outside, and start writing down or drawing all the living and nonliving things you notice. Examples are specific animals, plants, sun, water, air, and much more. 

Now, think of the ways they are related. For example, grass needs the sun for photosynthesis. Draw a line between sun and grass to represent this relationship. Keep thinking of relationships and drawing lines. How many can you think of? How connected is your ecosystem? Share your results with us on your summer challenge sheet or by using the form below!

 

Challenge #3 – Ecological Relationships

New Mexico’s state insect, the tarantula hawk wasp, has a fascinating relationship with tarantulas! (Photo by Mike Lewinski)

Try to spot some of our region’s iconic ecological relationships:

  • Abert’s squirrels and ponderosa pines. Look for these tufted-eared squirrels among the ponderosa pines, whose seeds and sap they eat. In addition, the squirrels eat the fruiting bodies and spread the spores of mycorrhizal fungi, which grow in a symbiotic relationship with the ponderosas!
  • Tarantula hawk wasps and … tarantulas. The state insect of New Mexico is a large wasp that captures and paralyzes tarantulas with its venomous (and reportedly extremely painful) sting. It lays a single egg inside the arachnid, and when the larva hatches, it eats the still-living tarantula from the inside out. Look for a heavy-looking wasp, up to 2 inches long, with a dark body and orange wings. Don’t worry, these wasps are not aggressive toward humans. See a quick video of a tarantula hawk paralyzing a tarantula here.
  • Milkweed and monarch butterflies. Monarchs breed and migrate through New Mexico, and you can see them here in late summer. The monarch is a specialist on milkweed plants, which means the female monarch lays eggs only on milkweed plants, and these plants sustain the hungry larvae until they are ready to metamorphose into adults. As they feed on the milkweed, the larvae build up toxins called cardenolides that help protect the butterflies from predation. There are several species of milkweed native to New Mexico. If you find milkweed, look for adult monarchs, eggs, larvae, or chrysalises, but be sure not to disturb these animals whose populations have declined precipitously in the last few decades due to habitat loss, pesticides, and climate change. You can visit PEEC’s new native milkweed garden behind the fence on the west side of the nature center.

 

Want to Learn More?

Share Your Experience:

Tell us about your outdoor experiences! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside. If you’d like this to count for the Summer Nature Challenge, be sure to include your name and email address.

Night Friends

Bats are extraordinary creatures that benefit people in myriad ways — the world would be infinitely poorer without them. Bats come in an incredible variety of shapes and sizes and have a great diversity of lifestyles. They are among the most diverse and successful mammals on the planet.

Consider this: Do bats play any part in the production of …

  • Bananas?
  • Chocolate?
  • Coffee?
  • Tequila?

It turns out that …

  • Wild banana plants — the source of all commercial varieties — require bats for pollination.
  • Without bats and birds controlling pests, cocoa bean yields would fall about 30%. That would mean less chocolate!
  • Likewise, on coffee farms, bats are voracious eaters of insects that attack these crops.
  • The agave from which all tequila is made relies on long-tongued bats for pollination. Where would New Mexico be without tequila for margaritas!?

Let’s take a moment to thank bats for life as we know it!


Bats show up in the fossil record around 50 million years ago, so these creatures have been inhabitants of this planet for a long time! There are more than 1,400 bat species worldwide. In the United States, we have 47 bat species, 23 of which are found in New Mexico. Our state’s species include the big brown bat, hoary bat, little brown bat (now endangered), Mexican free-tailed bat, pallid bat, silver-haired bat, Townsend’s big-eared bat, and western pipistrelle (also known as the canyon bat).

Brazilian free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis), commonly known as Mexican free-tailed bats, are noted for long, narrow wings and quick, straight flight patterns. These bats are the fastest mammals on earth, and have been recorded flying at speeds of 100 mph. These bats can also fly at heights of up to 10,000 feet! They start searching for food right after sunset and keep hunting throughout the night. We can thank them for eating thousands of insects each night, keeping mosquito and other harmful pest populations at bay.

Brazilian free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis) eating a moth while in flight in Texas. (Photo by MerlinTuttle.org)

Mexican free-tailed bats are also the most famous mammals found at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, in southern New Mexico. This large colony wows visitors every evening from spring through fall with spectacular outflights. Bracken Cave Preserve, near San Antonio, Texas, hosts the largest group of Mexican free-tailed bats in the U.S. where as many as 20 million bats are located in a single cave. These bats alone can eat over 200 TONS of insects in one night!

Closer to home, you can see outflights of tens of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats at El Malpais National Monument in Grants. Bandelier National Monument had a colony of about 10,000 individuals that frequented a cave along the Main Loop Trail between 1986 and 2002. It isn’t known exactly why this colony stopped using the cave: an ecological mystery!

Did you know that bats have had to deal with their own pandemic in North America? A deadly fungus known as White-Nose Syndrome (WNS) was discovered in Upstate New York in 2006. It thrives in cold environments where bats hibernate and has been decimating bat populations by keeping them from sleeping properly (much as you might sleep poorly when you are sick). The lack of sleep causes bats to use up their fat reserves before the end of winter, and consequently starve. The outbreak has resulted in millions of bat deaths and the epidemic is considered the worst wildlife disease outbreak in North American history.

A bat flight photographed from Natural Entrance at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. (Photo by Thomas Hawk)

WNS is less likely to be seen in warmer regions and has not been seen in migrating bats. Most Mexican free-tailed bats, for instance, migrate to Mexico and Central America during the winter and WNS has not been seen in this species. WNS has not been identified in New Mexico, but has spread westward to Texas and Oklahoma. Wildlife biologists in New Mexico are watching the spread of this disease with concern and are doing research and taking precautions to protect our bats. This interactive map shows how WNS has spread in the United States since 2006.

Bats may also prove useful in helping humans deal with our own pandemic. Because COVID-19 did not evolve with humans, our bodies have few defenses against it. Bats, on the other hand, have likely been evolving alongside coronaviruses for millions of years. Most importantly, bats might actually help to provide the solution for COVID-19 and other viruses. Bats do not get sick from many viruses that might kill humans, and research on how bats achieve this could hold the key to help us fight this and future outbreaks. This is one of many articles now appearing on this topic

How you can help bats: 

  • Learn about bats and teach others about bats.
  • Give bats the best habitat and resources to survive.
  • Put up bat houses, plant gardens that attract insects, avoid pesticides.
  • Avoid caves where bats are hibernating.